Blurring Binaries blurring Formal and Thematic Dichotomies in Peacock's "Little Miracle"

The villanelle form is one that plays with, and pokes at, the binary between rigidity and fluidity. Perhaps this dichotomous representation stems from the contrast between the villanelle's origins and its modern use; originally popping up in 17th-century rural France as spontaneous folk songs, the poetic form now seems rigid and inflexible in comparison to postmodernism’s tendency towards free verse. Although primarily adhering to the villanelle's set of rules, Molly Peacock’s “Little Miracle” also veers away from it in some respects. “Little Miracle,” a poem that follows a cycle of anxiety and acceptance over the little things in life, emphasizes the simultaneous fluidity and rigidity of the villanelle form through its use of punctuation and enjambment.

Peacock pokes at the binary between fluidity and rigidity through her use of the villanelle form.

Peacock’s first stanza is decidedly unyielding: not merely because it follows the villanelle form, but because each line in the tercet forms a single sentence:

(lines 1-3)

By confining each sentence to a single line, Peacock forces us to become hyper-aware of the villanelle form. We are forced to pause at the end of every line, reading in a way that is distinctly visual and reminiscent of an elementary understanding of poetic pauses. I am reminded, here, of middle school me: terrified to read a poem at the front of the class, I would make exaggerated pauses at the end of every line, partly because that was what I thought you were supposed to do, and partly to compensate for my nervous speed-talking. Confining pauses until the end of lines by means of punctuation auralizes the visual restrictions of the form; it linguistically forces us to pause where the poem visually does. It is interesting that Peacock decides to begin her poem in this manner, as its precise confinement is immediately deconstructed in the remainder of the text.

The contrast between fluidity and rigidity that the villanelle form plays with is thematically reinforced in Peacock’s refrains: “no use getting hysterical” and “our lives are a little miracle.” The first, while perhaps intending to be reassuring, in fact emphasizes the erratic flexibility of the poem’s form through its repetition; to constantly tell yourself not to be hysterical is, in a sense, hysterical in and of itself. In comparison, “our lives are a little miracle” seems grounded, definitive, and reassuring. Peacock’s two refrains seem to be in dialogue with each other, the second attempting to reassure the first throughout the poem. The fact that Peacock does not repeat her two refrains in the final stanza speaks not only to the destabilization of the villanelle form, but also to the reassuring nature of her narrative. The speaker must no longer continue this cycle of anxiety and reassurance because she has finally accepted the interplay of negativity and positivity in her life. Interestingly, instead of the speaker reassuring both herself and the reader in the last stanza (implied through the personal possessive “our” in the refrain “our lives are a little miracle”), Peacock makes a distinction between self and other. Peacock’s final stanza reads:

(lines 16-19)

In a sense, by denying the “others’” demands, Peacock is both breaking the narrative cycle of anxiety and reassurance and denying the strict demands of the villanelle form through refusing to repeat her two refrains.

The line “whimsical, / and lyrical, large and slow and clear” particularly acts as a microcosm of the binaries of fluidity and rigidity and anxiety and confidence (10-11). These contrasts are apparent not only in the adjectives Peacock uses, but also the ways in which the adjectives are presented.

(lines 10-11)

“Lyrical” is surrounded by commas, implying that it is a supplementary clause. Here, Peacock emphasizes the fluidity of “Little Miracle.” The commas enclosing “lyrical” act in the same manner as parentheses would; that is, to add supplementary information that does not affect the grammar of the sentence. “And lyrical,” as such, seems to be more of a spontaneous afterthought than a purposefully manufactured phrase. If we view the phrase in this manner, we are more likely to lower the octave of our voice when we pronounce it: the supplementary clause is lower than the independent clause both in importance and pronunciation. This up-and-down movement of the octaves when reading this phrase aurally reproduces the fluidity that the words “whimsical” and “lyrical” both suggest. To play off the anxiety and reassurance binary, the supplementary clause works to reassure and reinforce the independent clause: much like its name would suggest, it supplements, or enhances, the previous phrase.

The phrase “large and slow and clear,” conversely, uses polysyndeton, or the use of conjunctions in a list instead of commas. Polysyndeton, apart from equally emphasizing each item in a list, creates a monotonous rhythm that breaks the list into its elementary parts. If we are to read this list aloud, there is no suggestion in the line that the octave of our voice should change with each item. If we choose to put more emphasize on one item, it is because we personally believe the item has more significance, not because the poem suggests it does. In this sense, the phrase “large and slow and clear” is rigid: its simple, polysyndetonal wording forces us to adhere to a monotonous rhythm. When we return to the other binary I have proposed between anxiety and acceptance, the phrase “large and slow and clear” creates an interesting ambiguity. While the words themselves seem calm and reassuring, the polysyndeton creates a building feeling of anxiety due to its repetition. However, this interpretation relies heavily on our own personal attitudes: some may find the monotonous repetition of acts or phrases reassuring and calming, while some, like myself, may find them anxiety-and-headache inducing.

Rhythmic monotony can be tranquil and relaxing . . .

. . . or anxiety-and-headache inducing.

Just like how Peacock blurs the lines between fluidity and rigidity, and anxiety and acceptance, we must also be aware that our interpretations of such binaries are blurry; that is to say, they are dependent on our own personal readings.

- D.

Works Cited

Peacock, Molly. "Little Miracle." Original Love. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995.

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